After a 30 year career as a computer programmer and manager in the information technology sector, David H. Barrett became a mathematics teacher in the HCPSS, currently with Homewood Center. Barrett has been an active member of the community, sitting on several boards and active in multiple organizations. As co-founder of the Howard County program, Barrett writes about the origins and evolution of the local Alpha Achievers, a nationally recognized program promoting character growth and academic excellence for African-American males.
Co-founded by three men of the Howard County Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the Alpha Achievers program was established in 1997 at Oakland Mills High School. The men sensed a need to provide support to African-American high school males who had broken free of the negative stereotypes so often associated with them. Using the fraternity’s informal partnership already in place at Oakland Mills as an entry point, the men presented to the principal, Marshall Peterson, the idea of an academic club that would be a cadre of young scholars setting an example of academic excellence for themselves as well as the school community. It was decided that the minimum GPA for membership would be 3.0 and that each member would commit to 21 hours per year of community service.
Mr. Peterson recruited Oakland Mills history teacher, Mr. Vincent James, to be the group’s advisor. We started with the 18 young men who met the 3.0 GPA requirement. The program was quite simple. Once a month, we featured a professional African-American male who would tell his story, field questions and encourage the young men to continue their pursuit of excellence.
That summer a few of the young men contacted Mr. James. They wanted him to know that while they appreciated what the Alphas had done for them, they wanted to take over the program and run it themselves and let the Alpha men be community advisors. That was a welcome development because it was what we had hoped would happen. We just did not think it would be so soon. But the young men got busy and by the time school started had developed by-laws, policies and procedures to guide the fledgling organization. In the interim the Alphas found money in their budget to fund some modest outings, including field trips to see a Romare Bearden exhibit at the Smithsonian, two August Wilson plays and an author reading. The goal was to give them a cultural grounding they had not experienced in the HCPSS. Many had not ever seen a play by an African-American playwright or an art exhibit by an African-American artist. The young men decided the program should promote character growth, develop leadership skills and encourage members to become full citizens of the school and the community. A formal induction ceremony was designed to welcome the group’s new members. In the ceremony the young men light one candle for each of the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles of Kwanzaa). The principles are a guide to healthy living and social responsibility to community. At the conclusion of the ceremony, all of the Achievers recite the declaration, Determination.
By 2001, the ranks of the Oakland Mills group had grown to 45, and Long Reach with 25 members became the second school to have the program. By 2010 all 12 high schools had an Achievers chapter and in 2013 membership reached a little more than 400. The Oakland Mills group had begun to attract students from Latino and Asian communities who proclaimed it the only organization that welcomed them for who they were. This is nowhere more apparent than in their rising to positions of leadership. The Achievers experience inspired them to look more deeply into their own heritages.
The Alpha Achievers have made two 12-day trips to Ghana, West Africa for an educational and cultural experience during which time they visited the tombs of W.E.B. DuBois and Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah. They also visited the slave dungeons at Elmina and Cape Coast, and spent time with people of the Ashanti ethnic group and a Wilde Lake High School graduate and his family who live in Accra, Ghana.
The Alpha Achievers are a conspicuous presence in the HCPSS and beyond. They have been recognized and honored by the HCPSS, MSDE, the Eastern Region of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the Horizon Foundation, the Local Children’s Board and the Waring-Mitchell Law Society. It is estimated that since its inception, the group has delivered nearly 70,000 hours of community service.